Frank Duveneck. Who? An artist who could paint a portrait as fine as Portrait of a Man (Richard Creifelds) and who influenced a generation of artists, arguably helping change the face of American art.
He was born in Covington, Kentucky, October 8, 1848, the first child of recent German immigrants, Bernhard Decker and Catherine Siemers (1830-1905). Not long after his birth, his father died in the cholera epidemic of 1849. His widowed mother was 19. She married another German immigrant, Joseph Duveneck, who raised the boy as his own.
Could a youthful talented artist of Catholic German parents find success in post-Civil War America? In 1869 he traveled to Germany where he studied at the Royal Academy of Munich with Wilhelm von Diez (1839-1907) and Wilhelm Leibl (1844-1900). Leibl combined the classicism and vitality of Dutch Golden Age master Frans Hals (1582/1583-1666) with the modern techniques and sensibilities of Gustav Courbet (1819-1877). Duveneck not only absorbed the style, he invested it with his own raw power.
He became a teacher in Munich. Bilingual from his upbringing, he taught overflowing but separate classes for European students and English and American. Not only could he demonstrate technique, he could articulate his actions. He encouraged his pupils to develop stylistic individuality. From him they learned to paint with fearless brushstrokes. When Duveneck exhausted the artistic possibilities in Munich and persuaded by artist Elizabeth Boott (1846-1888), he relocated to Florence, Italy, Half of his students, “Duveneck’s Boys,” followed him: among them, William Merritt Chase (1849-1916), John White Alexander (1855-1915), Walter Shirlaw (1838-1909), and John Henry Twachtmann (1853-1902).
In Florence, under the influence of James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834-1903), Duveneck lightened his palette and smoothed his brushstrokes. His portraits lost none of their power.
In Florence, his relationship with Elizabeth Boott (1846-1888) deepened. She, like he, had lost a parent, her mother, when still too young to remember. From a family of Boston Brahmins, however, Elizabeth entered a life of privilege. Her father, Frank Boott, an amateur composer, was a friend of Henry James. Elizabeth spent time in James’ villa in Florence and was the model for the character Pansy in his book Portrait of a Lady.
They married March 25, 1886. Their son, Francis Boott Duveneck, was born December 18, 1886.
The Duvenecks traveled to Paris where Elizabeth died of influenza on March 22, 1888. Duveneck never fully recovered from his grief. He gave his son to the care of his grandfather and returned to America. Back in Covington, Kentucky, with his family, he turned to sculpture to create an eternal monument to his wife, which he installed it on her tomb in Florence.
In 1900, Duveneck joined the faculty of the Art Academy of Cincinnati. He summered in Gloucester, Massachusetts. In 1915 his country honored him at the Panama-Pacific International Exposition with a room devoted to a retrospective of work and awarded him a gold medal.
“Frank Duveneck, Artists and Architects, National Academy Museum, http://www.nationalacademy.org/collections/artists/detail/127/#/list/186
“Gallery Tells Tragic Love Story,” Cincinnati Enquirer, May 11, 2003, http://www2.cincinnati.com/cam/cincinnatiwing/camloveaffair.html
William Gerdts, Art Across America: Two Centuries of Regional Painting: 1710-1920, Volume II, The South and Near Midwest, Abbeville Press, 1990
Alta Macadam, Florence: A Complete Guide to the City and the Places Associated with Americans Past and Present, Giunti Editore, 2003
Anna Seaton Smith, “Frank Duveneck: Artist and Teacher,” Art and Progress, Vol. 6, No. 11 (Sep., 1915), pp. 387-394, http://www.jstor.org/stable/20561522
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